Strategies of Solidarity: Israel/Palestine and the Empire

A young Pales­tinian boy in a joint demon­stra­tion with Israeli Jews protest­ing house demo­li­tions, evic­tions, and set­tle­ments in the East Jerusalem neigh­bor­hood of Sil­wan, Sep­tem­ber 23, 2010. Oren Ziv/ActiveStills Col­lec­tive

Palestine today is per­haps the lead­ing inter­na­tional issue evok­ing sol­i­dar­ity on a global scale. Nonethe­less, the “com­mu­nity of nations” appar­ently remains help­less to address the Pales­tinian-Israeli con­flict. Despite esca­lated expres­sions of con­cern, offi­cial and unof­fi­cial inter­na­tional insti­tu­tions failed to halt or sub­stan­tially mod­er­ate Israel’s third assault on the Gaza Strip in the sum­mer of 2014 or impose any sanc­tion for it. Strain­ing the lim­its of credulity, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion, its inter­na­tional allies, and the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal class con­tinue to prat­tle about the “peace process” as if it were more than a pro­pa­ganda term. The widen­ing gap between global pub­lic opin­ion and the inef­fec­tu­al­ity of the inter­na­tional state sys­tem in the face of the ever-wors­en­ing con­di­tions of Pales­tinian lives obliges global sol­i­dar­ity activists to deepen our under­stand­ing of the con­flict, recon­sider the pos­si­bil­i­ties for its res­o­lu­tion, and reflect on our strate­gies.

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

For­merly, most of the inter­na­tional (but not Arab) left saw the con­flict as on between two national move­ments. Today, the left, and even some lib­er­als, increas­ingly under­stand the con­flict as one between set­tlers (Zion­ists) and an indige­nous peo­ple (Pales­tinian Arabs) and char­ac­ter­ize Israel (or at least its set­tle­ment project in the West Bank) as an “apartheid state.” His­tor­i­cally, both con­cep­tions have ele­ments of truth. How­ever, the set­tler colonial/apartheid aspect of the con­flict fig­ures more promi­nently as Israeli Jew­ish polit­i­cal opin­ion has become more assertively right wing since the demise of the Oslo “peace process” and the erup­tion of the sec­ond intifada in 2000.

The frame­work of set­tler colo­nial­ism and apartheid has been pop­u­lar­ized by the global cam­paign for boy­cott, divest­ment, and sanc­tions (BDS) against Israel in response to the 2005 call from over 170 Pales­tinian orga­ni­za­tions. Many cam­paign activists recall the role a sim­i­lar move­ment played in the demise of apartheid South Africa.

BDS is a strat­egy (or a range of strate­gies), not a uni­fied move­ment or a polit­i­cal plat­form. There is a Pales­tinian Boy­cott National Com­mit­tee, a Pales­tinian Cam­paign for the Aca­d­e­mic and Cul­tural Boy­cott of Israel (launched a year ear­lier than the broader BDS call), a U.S. Cam­paign for the Cul­tural and Aca­d­e­mic Boy­cott of Israel, and sev­eral sim­i­lar national orga­ni­za­tions. But BDS cam­paign par­tic­i­pants have no elected cen­tral lead­er­ship or demo­c­ra­tic deci­sion-mak­ing mech­a­nisms. Nonethe­less, they have made a major con­tri­bu­tion to trans­form­ing sup­port for Pales­tinian rights from a barely dis­cernible blip on the mar­gins of Amer­i­can polit­i­cal life to a vis­i­ble polit­i­cal force.

The polit­i­cal com­plex­ion of BDS ranges from lib­eral Zion­ists who gen­er­ally do not iden­tify with the inter­na­tional cam­paign and tar­get only set­tle­ments in the occu­pied West Bank (although the set­tle­ment project is inex­tri­ca­bly con­nected to the polit­i­cal econ­omy of Israel), non-Zion­ists, anti-Zion­ists, and pro­po­nents of both one- and two-state solu­tions to the con­flict. Res­o­lu­tions of churches, stu­dent unions, and aca­d­e­mic asso­ci­a­tions vary widely in their polit­i­cal import and prac­ti­cal scope. Orga­ni­za­tions and coali­tions have selected tar­gets and adopted tac­tics that they have deemed most appro­pri­ate to their local con­text – an approach approved by lead­ing Pales­tinian BDS activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In prac­tice, this means that most BDS cam­paigns in the United States are directed against Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, not the state of Israel itself.

For all their recent suc­cesses, BDS cam­paigns are not dri­ving Israel to a South African style col­lapse in the fore­see­able future. That day may come when the global and regional bal­ance of forces changes (and BDS cam­paigns are part of bring­ing this about) and if Pales­tini­ans develop an effec­tive and suf­fi­ciently uni­fied polit­i­cal lead­er­ship. In that event, Pales­tini­ans and Israelis will have to address their polit­i­cal future more seri­ously and con­cretely than cur­rent for­mu­laic state­ments do.

One State, Two States

What­ever the res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict and how­ever long it takes to achieve it, one fact on the ground will not change. Absent a cat­a­strophic regional war, two peo­ples who see them­selves as national com­mu­ni­ties – Pales­tinian Arabs and Israeli Jews – are des­tined to inhabit the land between the Jor­dan River and the Mediter­ranean Sea. Many Israeli Jews would like noth­ing bet­ter than to see Pales­tini­ans dis­ap­pear from the coun­try alto­gether. But in the face of repeated efforts to intim­i­date them and over­bur­den their lives, the great major­ity of Pales­tini­ans have qui­etly cho­sen to remain in their home­land. Inter­na­tional opin­ion will not tol­er­ate mass expul­sions like those of 1948 and 1967.

As for Israeli Jews, no Alge­rian-style solu­tion (colons and indige­nous Jews emi­grat­ing to France) is pos­si­ble. Most have nowhere to go. West­ern coun­tries are already wel­com­ing edu­cated Jews with high-tech and other busi­ness skills. But none would accept large num­bers of refugees from the work­ing and lower mid­dle classes. In this sense Israel does resem­ble South Africa – two nuclear-armed set­tler com­mu­ni­ties pre­pared to fight to the death. The South African case teaches us that it is pos­si­ble to dis­arm a set­tler com­mu­nity in favor­able cir­cum­stances and com­pel it to embark on a tran­si­tion towards a demo­c­ra­tic regime (even if we may dis­agree on the terms of the deal between the ANC and white South Africans).

A viable polit­i­cal strat­egy must offer a vision of the future that can, at least in prin­ci­ple, be embraced by the great major­ity of the inhab­i­tants of the land, regard­less of their national or reli­gious iden­tity. This must entail the full for­mal and sub­stan­tive equal­ity of both peo­ples and coex­is­tence rather than sep­a­ra­tion (the tra­di­tional left-Zion­ist solu­tion), regard­less of what polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions are estab­lished. This means a rad­i­cal demo­c­ra­tic acknowl­edg­ment of national, eth­nic, and reli­gious diver­sity. Unlike the South African ANC, the major­ity of Pales­tinian nation­al­ists, like most Zion­ists, do not advo­cate such a vision.

The tra­di­tional slo­gans of the left are inad­e­quate for resolv­ing the con­flict. The his­toric Trot­sky­ist approach, which sim­ply exhorted Arab and Jew­ish work­ers to repu­di­ate their respec­tive national move­ments and unite on a class basis, failed long ago. In the late 1960s Fatah raised the slo­gan, “a sec­u­lar demo­c­ra­tic state of Mus­lims, Chris­tians and Jews.” More recently, Pales­tini­ans, sol­i­dar­ity activists, and a grow­ing num­ber of left­ist Israelis have embraced the slo­gan, “one per­son, one vote.”

Fatah’s multi-reli­gious call ignores the rights of the few Baha’is, the many (mostly Jew­ish and more recently Rus­sian non-Jew­ish) athe­ists, and the 100-200,000 Bud­dhist Thai migrant work­ers who inhabit Israel/Palestine. More fun­da­men­tally, both slo­gans ignore the national dimen­sion of the con­flict. “One per­son, one vote” is rooted in the kind of lib­eral uni­ver­sal­ism that most of the inter­na­tional left has repu­di­ated. In addi­tion to ignor­ing ethno-national issues, it is blind to the inter­sec­tions of national and class ques­tions, which might require, for exam­ple, a com­pen­satory devel­op­ment plan for the Arab major­ity regions of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

The 2004 Olga Doc­u­ment of anti-Zion­ist Israelis and the 2007 Haifa Dec­la­ra­tion of Pales­tinian-Israelis pro­posed very sim­i­lar prin­ci­ples for resolv­ing the con­flict in Israel within its 1967 bor­ders: “The coun­try belongs to all its sons and daughters—citizens and res­i­dents, both present and absen­tees (the uprooted Pales­tinian cit­i­zens of Israel in 48)—with no dis­crim­i­na­tion on per­sonal or com­mu­nal grounds, irre­spec­tive of cit­i­zen­ship or nation­al­ity, reli­gion, cul­ture, eth­nic­ity or gen­der.” The Haifa Dec­la­ra­tion envi­sions an inde­pen­dent Pales­tinian state alongside a demo­c­ra­tic Israel; the Olga Doc­u­ment is non­com­mit­tal on this point. Pales­tini­ans, Israelis, and inter­na­tion­als seek­ing to break out of the straight­jacket of two states – but not really, and not yet – fash­ioned dur­ing the post-1993 Oslo process have offered addi­tional approaches since then: alter­na­tives to par­ti­tion, par­al­lel states, etc. Other ideas are cer­tainly pos­si­ble and worth con­sid­er­ing. How­ever, argu­ing about whether or not it is “too late” for a two-state solu­tion or whether it was ever a good idea is largely a waste of time and energy and often evades the key ques­tions of equal­ity and coex­is­tence.

Mustafa Bargh­outi, one of the most astute Pales­tinian polit­i­cal lead­ers with a dis­tin­guished his­tory of strug­gle begin­ning in the Palestine Com­mu­nist Party in the 1970s, is now the leader of the Pales­tinian National Ini­tia­tive and a mem­ber of the Pales­tinian Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil. Although long a pro­po­nent of two states, he now effec­tively finesses the issue, argu­ing that “the two-state solu­tion is dying.” But he has refrained from pro­claim­ing it dead because, “We will not fall into the … trap … of allow­ing them to accuse us of destroy­ing the two state solu­tion. If Israel really does leave the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, then we can talk about a two-state solu­tion and talk about a fed­er­ated agree­ment between states.” But that, he said, would be a “mir­a­cle.” Bargh­outi under­stands that remain­ing within the exist­ing inter­na­tional two-state con­sen­sus (deluded as it may be) puts Pales­tini­ans on the moral high ground.

In fact, nei­ther one nor two states are on the hori­zon. The esca­lat­ing pace of Israeli set­tle­ment in the West Bank and the right­ward lurch of Israeli-Jew­ish polit­i­cal opin­ion nearly guar­an­tee that Israel will not agree to a two-state solu­tion that amounts to more than Ban­tus­tans. There­fore, the focus should be uphold­ing the rights of the Pales­tinian peo­ple, enhanc­ing their capac­ity to remain on their lands, and stand­ing in sol­i­dar­ity with non­vi­o­lent acts of resis­tance.

In prin­ci­ple, Pales­tini­ans have the right to resist occu­pa­tion by armed strug­gle, and there is no deny­ing the his­tor­i­cal role of vio­lence in both col­o­niza­tion and decol­o­niza­tion. Hamas and Pales­tinian Islamic Jihad rep­re­sent this prin­ci­ple today. Despite their regres­sive ide­olo­gies and prac­tices, they are part of the Pales­tinian peo­ple. Ignor­ing or demo­niz­ing them as “ter­ror­ists” con­tributes to block­ing a res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict. How­ever, armed strug­gle in Palestine/Israel has failed. More­over, the form it has often taken, includ­ing many indis­crim­i­nate attacks on civil­ians, is both morally dubi­ous and poor strat­egy if the goal is to cre­ate the basis for a demo­c­ra­tic, multi-eth­nic, multi-reli­gious future.

Main­tain­ing ambi­gu­ity on one/two states does alien­ate many Zion­ist lib­er­als, like those of J Street, who envi­sion no solu­tion but two states and who explic­itly reject equal­ity and coex­is­tence. How­ever, J Street and its co-thinkers are part of the prob­lem, not the solu­tion. First, because they sup­port an Israeli state in which Jew­ish supremacy remains legally entrenched. Sec­ond, because they embrace seg­re­ga­tion. Finally, they imag­ine that the United States must play a lead­ing role in achiev­ing a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of the con­flict. The his­tor­i­cal record sug­gests that this is most improb­a­ble.

Debat­ing whether Israel and/or the occu­pa­tion regime in the West Bank and Gaza Strip does or does not meet the inter­na­tional legal cri­te­ria of apartheid is largely an aca­d­e­mic exer­cise. An ICC judg­ment find­ing Israel guilty of apartheid would influ­ence pub­lic opin­ion and carry weight in inter­na­tional venues where the Con­ven­tion on the Sup­pres­sion and Pun­ish­ment of the Crime of Apartheid has some stand­ing. But in and of itself it can­not deter­mine the out­come of the strug­gle. That depends on a polit­i­cal strat­egy and pro­gram.

Most of those who use the term “apartheid” mean that the Israel as cur­rently con­sti­tuted is pred­i­cated on expul­sion and expro­pri­a­tion of the Pales­tinian peo­ple, sys­tem­atic denial of their national and human rights, and an increas­ingly vicious racism. That much is self-evi­dent. As Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir argue, there is one sov­er­eign regime between the Jor­dan River and the Mediter­ranean Sea – Israel. It is a well-entrenched and fun­da­men­tally anti-demo­c­ra­tic regime that can­not be undone sim­ply by Israel with­draw­ing from the ter­ri­to­ries occu­pied in 1967. Ran Green­stein pro­poses the term “apartheid of a spe­cial type,” which leaves suf­fi­cient room to acknowl­edge the speci­fici­ties of the sit­u­a­tion while unequiv­o­cally brand­ing it as morally and polit­i­cally unac­cept­able.

The ene­mies of the Pales­tinian peo­ple remain those iden­ti­fied in the late 1960s, when Fatah and other armed orga­ni­za­tions emerged to revive a nation­al­ist move­ment that had been defeated in 1948, mis­led by its own elites, and coopted by Arab neigh­bors who posed as allies. They are Zion­ism, impe­ri­al­ism, and Arab reac­tion.


There are many dif­fer­ent forms of Zion­ism. Today, the dif­fer­ences are mostly of his­tor­i­cal inter­est. Labor (or social­ist) Zion­ism, the hege­monic form until 1977, was more effec­tive in set­tling the land of Palestine and uproot­ing its indige­nous Arab inhab­i­tants than the Revi­sion­ist Zion­ist move­ment, the pre­cur­sor of Israel’s Likud Party, or the mod­ern Ortho­dox reli­gious forces that emerged as the van­guard of the set­tle­ment move­ment in the 1970s. Set­tle­ment and estab­lish­ing a Jew­ish major­ity in the coun­try was the com­mon pro­gram of all ver­sions of Zion­ism. Today the heirs of Labor Zion­ism – the Labor Party and the much smaller Meretz to its left – are defen­sive, timid, and inde­ci­sive in their nom­i­nal oppo­si­tion to Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. More­over, they avoid address­ing issues like sub­stan­tive equal­ity and refugees. No form of Zion­ism today con­sti­tutes an effec­tive oppo­si­tion to Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or its other increas­ingly anti-demo­c­ra­tic poli­cies.

The great major­ity of those who now call them­selves Zion­ists sup­port more or less egre­gious forms of Jew­ish supremacy in Israel/Palestine. That is the oper­a­tive mean­ing of Zion­ism for Pales­tini­ans. But there is no rea­son to object if the very small num­ber of Zion­ists who abjure Jew­ish supremacy, like Charles Manekin, a pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish stud­ies and phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land who blogs at The Mag­nes Zion­ist, wish to define Zion­ism as a Jew­ish cul­tural revival and con­tinue to iden­tify with it as such.

U.S. Imperialism

The most con­stant ele­ment of the con­flict for the last half cen­tury is that Israel’s over­whelm­ing regional mil­i­tary supe­ri­or­ity, its sta­tus as a U.S. ally ben­e­fit­ting from extra­or­di­nary access to mil­i­tary aid and polit­i­cal sup­port, and a U.S. monopoly on the puta­tive “medi­a­tion” of the con­flict have con­structed a polit­i­cal impasse that allows the sta­tus quo to con­tinue indef­i­nitely. Rashid Khalidi’s recent book, Bro­kers of Deceit, defin­i­tively con­firms that the United States has long been the main exter­nal force pre­vent­ing a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion of the Pales­tinian-Israeli con­flict (although there is room to debate his rea­son­ing for why this is so). The United States has repeat­edly blocked efforts by the United Nations, the Euro­pean Union, and Rus­sia to break the diplo­matic impasse. His­tor­i­cally, Europe deferred to the United States in the Mid­dle East, not least because for many years Amer­i­can-owned cor­po­ra­tions con­trolled Europe’s oil spigot. The EU and sim­i­lar for­ma­tions like the hap­less Quar­tet, which pre­tended to be a rel­e­vant actor in the 2000s, are inca­pable of bring­ing about a just solu­tion to the con­flict unless the United States autho­rizes them.

America’s Arab allies have long argued that if only Israel and its sup­port­ers had not hijacked its Mid­dle East pol­icy, the United States would pur­sue a pol­icy of peace and jus­tice in Israel/Palestine. Some Amer­i­can orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als, includ­ing The Coun­cil for the National Inter­est, If Amer­i­cans Knew, The Mid­dle East Pol­icy Coun­cil and the monthly Wash­ing­ton Report on the Mid­dle East sup­port Pales­tinian rights on that premise. Their lead­ers promi­nently include for­mer diplo­mats who served in Arab oil states and for­mer mem­bers of Con­gress. Some of these groups have received fund­ing from Arab oil states that are essen­tially pro­tec­torates of the United States.

This posi­tion is not only asso­ci­ated with careers made in the Arab world. Phil Weiss, one of the Jew­ish edi­tors of the Mon­doweiss blog, has no such con­nec­tions. But he and other con­trib­u­tors con­sis­tently point to the Israel lobby as the prin­ci­pal deter­mi­nant of U.S. pol­icy on Israel/Palestine. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, promi­nent schol­ars who long held con­sen­sus views at the cen­ter of real­ist inter­na­tional rela­tions the­ory, offer the most com­pre­hen­sive and rea­soned pre­sen­ta­tion of this posi­tion. They can think of no expla­na­tion besides the lobby for why the inter­ests of a client state con­sis­tently out­weigh the national inter­ests of its great power patron. Like all real­ist the­o­rists, they view “national inter­ests” as an objec­tive fact, not an object of con­tention among dif­fer­ent social forces of a national polity. More­over, they some­how fail to notice that the United States is an impe­rial power in the Mid­dle East and beyond, a fact that inter­ven­tion­ist lib­er­als like Michael Ignati­eff acknowl­edge and embrace, in sur­pris­ing agree­ment with many neo-con­ser­v­a­tives.

Imag­in­ing that U.S. posi­tions on Israel-Palestine are due only to pres­sure from the Israel lobby and have no sig­nif­i­cant geo-strate­gic com­po­nent requires ignor­ing the bloody his­tory of U.S. pol­icy in the Mid­dle East. Its high­lights include the 1953 CIA coup in Iran and sup­port for a long list of Arab absolute monar­chies and civil­ian auto­crats begin­ning with Saudi Ara­bia, the first and most regres­sive of Islamist regimes. Those alliances, along with the U.S.-Israel alliance, were con­sol­i­dated in the con­text of the Cold War.

In the 1967 war, Israel igno­min­iously defeated the rad­i­cal Arab nation­al­ist states of Egypt and Syria, which had (along with Iraq) out­bid each other in promis­ing to lib­er­ate Palestine and trans­form their own coun­tries. The defeat of the Arab states allowed armed Pales­tinian resis­tance orga­ni­za­tions to take over the PLO and reframe the Pales­tinian cause as part of the global anti-colo­nial strug­gle. Much of the Arab world, espe­cially youth influ­enced by the New Left, saw the Pales­tinian resis­tance as a new regional van­guard. The United States opposed the PLO and pro­pos­als for Pales­tinian inde­pen­dence in the 1970s and 1980s as much for that rea­son as sup­port for Israel.

In Latin Amer­ica, Israel per­formed impor­tant proxy tasks in the 1970s and 1980s, when Con­gress refused to autho­rize arms sales or mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion (El Sal­vador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Hon­duras, Argentina), in some cases sell­ing more arms than the U.S. desired. Israel also col­lab­o­rated with apartheid South Africa in devel­op­ing nuclear weapons. There were then, as now, occa­sional impor­tant pol­icy dif­fer­ences. But on bal­ance, since the mid-1960s, Israel has been a strate­gic asset for the U.S. empire.

In addi­tion to its overly ide­al­ized and his­tor­i­cally blink­ered view of U.S. Mid­dle East pol­icy, the argu­ment that the Israel lobby uniquely influ­ences U.S. Mid­dle East pol­icy repli­cates the clas­sic anti-Semitic trope of exces­sive Jew­ish power. There is no evi­dence that John Mearsheimer is an anti-Semite in any con­scious or overt way, unlike Gilad Atz­mon, who has been denounced as an anti-Semite by Pales­tini­ans, Jews, and oth­ers in the inter­na­tional sol­i­dar­ity move­ment. But Mearsheimer’s sup­port­ive blurb for Atzmon’s “fas­ci­nat­ing and provoca­tive book on Jew­ish iden­tity in the mod­ern world” The Wan­der­ing Who? betrays polit­i­cal naiveté, lim­ited knowl­edge of the issue, and polit­i­cal irre­spon­si­bil­ity.

Undoubt­edly, the Israel lobby exer­cises great influ­ence over U.S. Mid­dle East pol­icy, and per­haps even more so over domes­tic pol­i­tics. That influ­ence has been more vis­i­ble and more sub­stan­tial since the 1990s. The lobby has expanded well beyond its his­toric Jew­ish core. Chris­tians United for Israel has by far the largest mem­ber­ship of any pro-Israel lob­by­ing orga­ni­za­tion, although its annual bud­get is less than half that of the Jew­ish-based Amer­i­can Israel Pub­lic Affairs Com­mit­tee (AIPAC).

Nonethe­less, on mat­ters that are cen­tral to U.S. impe­rial inter­ests the lobby gen­er­ally does not pre­vail: Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower demanded that Israel evac­u­ate the Sinai Penin­sula and the Gaza Strip fol­low­ing the Israeli-French-British aggres­sion against Egypt in 1956; the U.S. sold weapons to Jor­dan in the mid-1960s over Israel’s objec­tions; the Rea­gan admin­is­tra­tion sup­plied AWACS sur­veil­lance air­craft to Saudi Ara­bia in 1986-87 despite the oppo­si­tion of Israel and the lobby; Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush refused to autho­rize $10 bil­lion in loan guar­an­tees to Israel in 1991 as long as it con­tin­ued set­tle­ment in the West Bank and pub­licly crit­i­cized the Israel lobby for oppos­ing him (he sub­se­quently backed down); Pres­i­dent Obama has crit­i­cized the lobby and Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu over their oppo­si­tion to the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear pro­gram in unusu­ally force­ful terms. Speak­ing at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity Obama stated, “as pres­i­dent of the United States it would be an abro­ga­tion of my con­sti­tu­tional duty to act against my best judg­ment sim­ply because it causes tem­po­rary fric­tion with a dear friend and ally.”

The Contradictions of Regional Politics

Do the friends of the Pales­tinian move­ment for human and national rights include puta­tively anti-impe­ri­al­ist Arab states or the cler­i­cal regime of Iran? The Arab states that won inde­pen­dence from colo­nial rule and were iden­ti­fied with the global anti-impe­ri­al­ist camp from the 1950s to the 1980s (which was, to be sure, prob­lem­at­i­cally linked to the Soviet Union) – Egypt, Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, and Alge­ria – were wary of a polit­i­cally inde­pen­dent PLO. They sought to con­tain it and deploy it to serve their par­tic­u­lar inter­ests, spon­sor­ing splin­ter groups to divide and weaken the resis­tance move­ment and lim­it­ing its access to arms. Then, as now, the Pales­tini­ans had no reli­able allies in the Arab world.

Since the 1980s Iran, Syria, and Hezbol­lah, have con­sti­tuted what some have called an “axis of resis­tance” in the Mid­dle East because they oppose the regional sta­tus quo, includ­ing U.S. impe­rial dom­i­nance. The Iran-Syria-Hezbol­lah axis nec­es­sar­ily clashes with Amer­ica and its allies, most promi­nently Israel, Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, Jor­dan, and Yemen. But, no ele­ment of this axis has ever elab­o­rated a viable pro­gram to coun­ter U.S. impe­ri­al­ism. The Mid­dle East is far more com­plex than a term like “axis of resis­tance” (or “axis of evil”) sug­gests.

Since the 2003 U.S. inva­sion of Iraq and even more so after the erup­tion of the Syr­ian civil war in 2011, the United States has come to con­sider Sunni jihadi Islamists – al-Qa‘ida in the Ara­bian Penin­sula, the Nusra Front (Jab­hat al-Nusra, al-Qa‘ida’s Syr­ian fran­chise), the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) and the Sinai Province (IS’s Egyp­tian affil­i­ate, for­merly Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) – as its high­est pri­or­ity adver­saries in the Mid­dle East. The U.S. has unof­fi­cially coor­di­nated attacks on IS with Ira­nian-trained Iraqi-Shi‘a mili­tias and not pre­vented and prob­a­bly coor­di­nated with Ira­nian, Syr­ian, and Rus­sian air­craft oper­at­ing against IS in Iraq.

Reduc­ing Mid­dle East­ern pol­i­tics to a sim­plis­tic dichotomy of “Islamists” vs. “sec­u­lar­ists” is equally unhelp­ful. This does not account for the cur­rent con­fronta­tion between the Sunni camp led by Saudi Ara­bia and the Shi‘a camp led by Iran. Nor does it explain the rivalry between Saudi Ara­bia and Qatar within the Sunni camp or the close alliance of “sec­u­lar­ist” Egypt and “Islamist” Saudi Ara­bia and their align­ment with the United States (and implic­itly, Israel).

Turkey, a NATO mem­ber, has recently announced that it has become more engaged against IS. But Turkey regards both IS and the Nusra Front as allies against its large Kur­dish minor­ity, fear­ing that Turk­ish and Syr­ian Kurds have become overly embold­ened by the U.S. pro­tec­torate over Iraqi Kur­dis­tan that has per­mit­ted it to approach the sta­tus of an inde­pen­dent state. Turk­ish airstrikes have report­edly been con­cen­trated, not against IS, but against north­ern Syr­ian posi­tions of Kur­dish mili­tias, even though they have been the most effec­tive ground force com­bat­ting IS.

The inad­e­quacy of the “Islamist”-“secularist” binary was sharply exposed in July, when the Nusra Front cap­tured eight mem­bers of Divi­sion 30, a unit of so-called mod­er­ates trained by the United States to fight IS in Syria. In early August, the Nusra Front assaulted Divi­sion 30’s head­quar­ters, killed five of its mem­bers, and cap­tured sev­eral more. Divi­sion 30 announced that that it, “will not fight Jab­hat al-Nusra” and that, con­trary to Amer­i­can strat­egy, it will fight against the regime of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-‘Asad. Remain­ing mem­bers of Divi­sion 30 have taken refuge in Kur­dish held areas of north­ern Syria, and the United States has retreated from the project of devel­op­ing a pro-Amer­i­can rebel armed force in Syria.

Divi­sion 30 train­ers appar­ently believed that the Nusra Front would tol­er­ate its oper­a­tions against IS, since IS and the Nusra Front are rivals in the camp opposed to the ‘Asad regime. The Amer­i­cans had appar­ently not con­sid­ered that the Nusra Front would be sophis­ti­cated enough to under­stand that any force that suc­cess­fully fought IS would gain com­bat expe­ri­ence and pres­tige and poten­tially chal­lenge the Nusra Front as well. Amer­i­can pol­icy mak­ers also appar­ently believed they could build a neo-colo­nial mil­i­tary force that would engage only the enemy des­ig­nated by the United States: IS.

China and Rus­sia have a grow­ing pres­ence in the Ira­nian and Iraqi gas and oil indus­try. Like the United States after World War II, they ben­e­fit from not hav­ing been colo­nial pow­ers in the region (or in the case of Rus­sia and Iran, not very recently). But it is easy to imag­ine them adopt­ing a more impe­rial role. Iran, Syria, and Rus­sia are prepar­ing a new diplo­matic ini­tia­tive propos­ing a solu­tion to the Syr­ian civil war. In the absence of a remotely suc­cess­ful pol­icy, the United States may decide to engage this demarche if the Joint Com­pre­hen­sive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear pro­gram becomes effec­tive. At that point, there may be an intense debate between those U.S. pol­icy mak­ers who have encour­aged IS as a force against the ‘Asad regime and those will­ing to see ‘Asad or an equally author­i­tar­ian suc­ces­sor regime as an ally against jihadi Islamists – a com­ple­ment to U.S. pol­icy in Egypt and Yemen.

Enemies and Friends

Anti-demo­c­ra­tic forces of all stripes are the ene­mies of a just res­o­lu­tion of the Pales­tinian-Israeli con­flict. Iran and Hezbol­lah have played a cer­tain role in sup­port­ing Pales­tinian resis­tance. But they are nei­ther reli­able nor desir­able as allies. Their bom­bas­tic pro­nounce­ments detract from the strug­gle as much as they may have aided it by appear­ing to align the cause of Palestine with Holo­caust deniers and reli­gious fanat­ics. Their reli­gious ori­en­ta­tion fright­ens some poten­tial allies, not least many Pales­tinian Chris­tians. Syria and Iran do not wish to see a demo­c­ra­tic regime that guar­an­tees the rights of all its eth­nic and reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties in Israel/Palestine any more than Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, and Jor­dan. Their sta­tus as sym­bols of “resis­tance” against U.S. hege­mony would be under­mined by res­o­lu­tion of the Pales­tinian-Israeli con­flict. Iran’s domes­tic oppo­si­tion forces would be embold­ened. The ‘Asad regime’s claim to be “the beat­ing heart of Ara­bism” in oppo­si­tion to Zion­ism and impe­ri­al­ism would become out­moded.

Pol­i­tics is more demand­ing if we must think through each sit­u­a­tion in a detailed man­ner. But work­ing through those com­plex­i­ties pro­vides the best expe­ri­ence for devel­op­ing long-term strate­gies and polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions. As Larbi Ben M’hidi famously said in The Bat­tle of Algiers, “It’s only after­wards, when we have won, that the true dif­fi­cul­ties begin.”

*Thanks to Max Ajl, Matan Kaminer, David Man­del and Zachary Lock­man for com­ments on an early draft of this arti­cle.

Author of the article

is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. His newest book, forthcoming in early November, is titled Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.